‘Irregularities in pandemic response fund deprived people of right to health care, right to live’

Photo by Carlo Manalansan / Bulatlat

“The Duterte administration should stop this drama. This is not helping the people in getting due social services at a time when the state of our healthcare system is worsening.”


MANILA – Shamed, bloodied, and bludgeoned.

This is how Health Secretary Francisco Duque III described the impact of the initial report of state auditors over the irregularities in the billions of public funds intended for the government’s pandemic response. But various groups have had enough excuses and drama. They want a solid explanation.

“In the midst of a health crisis, many patients are being deprived of their right to quality health care and right to live because of lack of drugs, medicines, equipment, supplies and medical facilities due to insufficient budget of public hospitals,” said Benjamin Santos, secretary general of the Alliance of Health Workers, adding that “it is so disgusting that ironically there are billions of funds being unliquidated and unutilized.”

The Commission on Audit, in its report, said that the P67.3 billion ($1.33 billion) worth of public funds “contributed to the challenges encountered and missed opportunities” by the health department during the state of national emergency.

But instead of clarifying, an emotional Duque faced the public, claiming he lost sleep and lamenting that the state auditors’ report had tarnished the health department’s pandemic response. Meanwhile, President Duterte has ordered government agencies to ignore the initial findings of state auditors, because “…son of a b****. Nothing will happen there.”

Read: What’s wrong with Secretary Duque?

The AHW said health workers are furious over what they described as “criminal neglect, grave inefficiency, and gross incompetence” on the part of the Duterte government in dealing with the pandemic when it should have been “used to ensure efficient healthcare services to the people and for health workers’ safety, protection, and welfare.”

Benefits of health workers, overpriced face masks

In a press briefing earlier this week, the AHW said health workers felt deceived that the department has long been claiming that there are insufficient public funds for their benefits and hazard pays when there are unused funds amounting to P11.9 billion ($235.8 million).

Since the dreaded virus broke into the country last year, health workers have intensified their calls for increased salary, mass hiring of health workers, and the release of their benefits as mandated by Philippine laws.They raised these issues before the health department in a series of dialogues.

Read: #UndoingDuterte | Public health’s sorry state under an unapologetic regime

Read: Nurses push for mass hiring, safe space amid increasing COVID-19 cases

These dialogues, however, were “not truly fruitful” and had “no substantial gains” because they were merely told that they were told by the budget department to tap their agency’s savings, which only amounted to P1.21 billion ($25.26 million).

AHW estimated that at least P59 billion ($1.23 billion) must be allocated to provide the benefits due to health workers.

Apart from unused funds, the department was also flagged for what appeared to be overpriced face masks and face shields.

State auditors raised the attention to the health department’s spending on face masks amounting to P13.50 ($0.27) to P27.72 ($0.55) each, and face shields at P120 ($2.38) each. Together, these cost the government P1.8 billion ($35.7 million). The health department attributed this to the high demand for face masks and shields last year.

During a senate hearing, Sen. Franklin Drilon noted that “it is obvious that there was an overprice.”

“We were asked if we think Duque is a liar, and we said yes because we raised the concern on health workers benefits in our dialogues with him. But he would always say that he cannot do anything else, being just one of the government agencies responding to this pandemic. But now we learned that there are billions of misused, unused, and unutilized funds,” said Santos.

No more drama

Amid billions of funds that have yet to be accounted for, the AHW said that conditions on the ground are worsening – with health workers contracting the dreaded virus and patients now being treated in parking lots as the number of cases rises. They also decried the lack of medical equipment such as hi-flow oxygen and mechanical ventilators in public hospitals.

In a statement, ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said they have had enough drama and excuses from the Duterte administration every time there are questions of anomalies and hints of corruption.

“The Duterte administration should stop this drama. This is not helping the people in getting due social services at a time when the state of our health care system is worsening. Meanwhile, those in power continue to benefit from its failed response and in addressing the crisis in our economy, health, and education sector,” said Rep. Castro.

Groups are also renewing their calls as they demand Duque’s resignation. This is despite the president’s pronouncement that the health secretary has done “nothing wrong.”

Appalled, Zenaida Soriano, chairperson of women farmers’ group Amihan, said, “If Sec. Duque has even an ounce of conscience and delicadeza left in his body, he should immediately resign from his post and support the calls for an independent probe on the corruption issues involving the DOH.” (RTS, RVO) (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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